A Review of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (The Board Game)

So, let’s be clear here: this is a review of the Batman: The Dark Knight Returns The Board Game (from Cryptozoic Games); this is not a review of the seminal work by Frank Miller.  The Dark Knight Returns is arguably some of Frank Miller’s best work (along with Ronin and his runs on Daredevil).  The Dark Knight Returns (originally a 4 issue mini-series, but usually found in full graphic novel) follows an aging Batman as he strives to protect an older Gotham from his main villains.  It’s a very dark and very graphic re-imagining of the Batman universe, and it’s strongly recommended for very mature audiences.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns The Board Game takes the story from Frank Miller’s work and turns it into a game. The game is broken up into 4 issues (see above), paralleling the original release of The Dark Knight Returns. In each issue, you play through the corresponding story from the original issues of the mini-series.

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This is a solo adventure game with a 2-Player versus mode included (tacked-on?).

Unboxing

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This solo game is enormous! Now, granted, I am showing the deluxe Kickstarter version (see above for scale with a coke can), but wow. Wait until you see the whole thing on the table later.

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It almost looks like a bookcase game or a World Atlas! It’s in a giant hard slip case and contains two boxes.

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It’s hard to tell from the pictures above, but the main box has some neat detail on it (see below):

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This is truly a deluxe package.

Now, what’s in the two different cases?  The first box has the miniatures (if you get the non-deluxe version, you get cardboard standees instead, see later).

These are pretty nice miniatures. They reflect Frank Miller’s style, which is a little messy, so maybe they don’t make the greatest miniatures. But they are very thematic.

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As usual, I encourage people to use their phone to take pictures of the layout because once you take out all the minis, it’s a pain to get them back in.

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Helpful tip: the game has a lot of components and doesn’t fit back in the box well, so I took advantage of the extra space UNDERNEATH the miniatures and put the plastic bases (for the cardboard) underneath so I can always find them if I need them. I also put a reminder in my box so I know there is stuff underneath the minis.

The second box comes with the rest of the game.

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I’m trying desperately to indicate HOW BIG these rulebooks and boxes are with another Coke can for scale! The main rulebook (on top) is enormous! The main rulebook doubles as Issue #1, then Issues #2 , #3, and #4 come out as well as a one-shot scenario/PVP mode book. Overall, there are 5 very large books! See below.

Underneath the books are the game board and the punchouts.

Some of these punchouts will be unnecessary since we have the miniatures (basically the minis are the characters and a few cool items).

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3 Pages of punchouts (see above)

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One enormous board … it barely fits on my table! Again, Coke can included for scale. See above.

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Underneath the board and punchouts are the cards, dice, plastic bases, dice bag and … a dry-erase marker? Yes, the game board itself is for dry-erase! This is a “soft” legacy game where you will be drawing on the board and changing Gotham city (with your marker) as you progress through the 4 issues. It’s “soft” legacy because you can always reset everything by erasing the marker (and resetting the decks).

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Underneath the dice bag are (shockingly) a bunch of dice. See above.

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Perhaps the coolest component in the game are the solo player’s little “bat-dice”! They are 6-sided dice with little bat-wings (so bat-dice). They function essentially as 4-sided dice, but they look a whole lot cooler with the little wings! The blue dice are the base dice and the other colors are upgrades you can earn/buy as you play through the four issues of the game.

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What’s a little weird is the symbols on the dice feel more “Adam West” kitschy Batman with POW! BLOCK! and RAM! symbols. I mean, The Dark Knight Returns is arguably the darkest Batman and these kitschy symbols feel a little out of place in the Dark Knight game? Or am I being too picky?

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There are a lot of other dice in the game, but each issue chooses which ones are apropos (see upper left: notice that I am storing most of the dice in the place where the plastic bases were …)

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Most of the rest of the components are card decks. The first four are for issues 1, 2, 3, 4 (see the little number in the lower right). The other two decks are shared decks for all games (VS decks for the 2-player versus mode and S cards for shared cards for most games).

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Each issue has cards with Frank Miller art apropos to that issues. See above for some cards from Issue 1.

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Finally are some large cards and plastic stands. The large cards are summary cards and story cards for each issue.

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Overall, the components for this game look really nice and thematic (as long as you like Frank Miller art: his art can be polarizing).

Rulebook

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The rulebook is prettty good. But it’s not great.

The first page, the table of contents, belies the complexity of this game: this is a complex game. See all the rules and sections?

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The next page shows the Components, but it suffers from the same problem as Deep Space – D6: Armada from last week! It DOES NOT label the components!! In a game full of components, you have to guess what components are what. It’s a little better than Armada in that at least the named components are on the same page as a picture, but they don’t correlate them!!! Which is which? It’s not the end of the world, but it was slightly annoying.

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The next page is actually incredibly helpful, as you see what components and what dice correspond to what issue! They aren’t all labelled (grumble) but at least it does help you figure out what issue will need what.

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Above describes the steps to take to get going …

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AH! Finally! A full two-page spread on what everything looks like! Okay, this helps put everything together.

From here on out, the rulebook is pretty good: lots of examples.  There are still questions I have even after playing through (What do you do if you get press on your Location?  Does something bad happen? Do you have to move away immediately?), but in general most of my questions were answered.

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Rulebook was fine but I want to reiterate HOW LARGE IT IS! See above. It’s harder to keep this at the table while you play. See below.

Keeping 2 pages of the rulebook open while trying to play took up almost my entire table: see above.

Rulebook overall was pretty good.

Set-Up

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Set-up was a bit of a bear as I tried to have the rulebook open and set-up everything. Note that the above is a FAILED attempt to set things up .. why? Because I have to put cards to the right and left of the board! I need space on both the left and right edges!

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The set-up above is a successful attempt! I have the rulebook, and minis on the left side of the table, tokens in the middle, and the game board with cards along all edges off the the right. Make no mistake about it: this game will take up all the space you give it!

Solo Play

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This is a solo adventure game. (Well, there’s a tacked on VS mode, but I doubt I’ll ever play it). Batman needs to survive all 4 issues to win. Ya, the rulebook is a bit of a downer: the game is not about winning but surviving until the end. There are many ways to lose:

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One: If any of your health/grit/sanity reach 0, you lose (see above, I’m not doing so well at the end of the issue 1).

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Two: If the doomsday clock ever hits 12, you lose.

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Three: If you haven’t found and defeated the main villain (see above) by the end of round 16, you lose. See the round tracker (called GCPD Track) below.

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At the end of your game, you KEEP everything the way it was: your health/grit/sanity, the set-up of the board, the paths you have created, and some things on the GCPD track.  

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As you play, you can achieve some goals which help you: the goals above allow you to upgrade your “bat-dice” to get better ones. These upgrades follow you as well.

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As you explore the city, you move to locations and activate “one” of the three symbols on the location you land on. For example, above, Monolith Square has 3 actions: heal 1 health (red heart), heal 1 sanity (green cowl), or 1 grit (blue figure). Selina’s Apartment has 3 actions, but 1 is blocked by a COP (blue police badge), so you can’t do anything on that space until you fight the COP (using your bat dice). If you do get rid of the COP, you can either use Selina’s Apt. to get rid of 1 press token (green TV, a bad guy) or get rid of 1 mutant (red figure, a bad guy).

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You might also notice there are lots of “connecting lines” on the board: when you first start the game, the track around Gotham is VERY linear! As Batman “explores” the city (after every 4th round or special actiobs), he can draw find a new path (represented by the solo player connecting any two city Locations). There are some limiting rules for those connections, but in general, it allows you to make Gotham easier to get around. This is the “soft” legacy part we talked about in the Component Section.

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Batman: The Dark Knight Returns The Board Game is an exploration game as you explore the city and looks for things: (new goals, routes, scenario-specific items). It’s also a combat game (with dice for combat). It also feels a little like Pandemic (in some ways) as every turn, some bad guys will appear somewhere on the board and cause mischief.

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Where do the “bad guys” come out? This is where Batman: The Dark Knight Returns The Board Game is different: you know HOW MANY and WHERE the bad guys will come out! The round marker (above) shows where the bad guy come out: In round 13 (above), 2 mutants come out in the Upper East (UE) part of the map. You can use this forward data to inform how you play!

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There are a lot of complex rules for combat (how gangs come out, how they affect combat, how adjacent bad guys affect you, etc), but at the end of the day, it’s about rolling dice based on the number of enemies on your (and adjacent) locations. BAMs do damage, but BLOCKS will block a BAM and there are some other rules. In the above combat, Two-Face has 5 hit points as Batman has to POW him 5 times to win the issue! But of course, Two-Face gets his own dice which does dastardly things too …

Again, you don’t “win” this game, you survive to the end. You explore the city, find paths, keep the city under control (by limiting Press, Cops, Mutants, and Gangs), and fight bad guys. And sometimes you have the help of some allies. In Issue #1, Commisioner Gordon is VERY useful at keeping the Press under control (see below).

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Choices

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There are a lot of weird and interesting choices in this game.  And I mean that sincerely.  Some of them I really liked and some just seem weird/random to me.

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A choice that’s weird happens during set-up and bad news: Whenever you put a bad guy (Cop, Mutant or Press) on the board, you get a lot of “choices” where to put it.  In Pandemic, you know EXACTLY where a disease goes!! But in Batman: Dark Knight Returns The Board Game, you are just told “a region”.  Something like Upper East. Midtown, Lower West.  Not the “Selina’s Apt” Location, not the “Gotham Police Station” Location, but a region? You choose where in a region.  So you get a lot of choice.  And it freaked me out a little at first.

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Even weirder is that if there are multiple slots open on a Location (remember, there are three slots per Location), you choose which of the three slots!  So the Cop above went in “one” of the Spots on Coventry, but I got to choose?

I am not sure if this is brilliant or lazy.   

It could be brilliant because it lets players have “so much more choice” when they place bad guys.  Players control where Bad Guys go, so it’s their fault if they lose!  They had the choice!!  That’s cool, right?

But it also seems lazy as it seems very athematic: “I am the solo player choosing where Bad Guys go? Wait, I am fighting these guys!!  Shouldn’t the engine of the game do this?”  The designers don’t have to come up with some complex mechanism or AI to place the Bad Guys: they just point to  region.

I honestly don’t know what I think of this.  It just seems weird to me.

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One choice I really like, however, is choosing Bad News/Good New Cards! See above!! The game gives you 12 cards per turn: the top portion of every card is GOOD NEWS (helps the Hero) and the bottom of the card is BAD NEWS (hurts the Hero). Four of these cards must be chosen for the Bad News parts and the other eight are chosen for the the Hero’s Good News part (Detective or Fight). You get 3 cards at a time, keeping 2 as good news, 1 for the bad news. See above.

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This mechanism is really cool because it forces the solo to choose which Bad News and Good News you get during the game!! Of course, each issue has its own notion of good news and bad news cards (as well as some standard), so every game will be very different.

This mechanism seems thematic for The Dark Knight: a dark Batman knows that every action has consequences (both good and bad), and choosing the best path forward will require dealing with both sides of the issue. Sometimes Batman will have to embrace a very harsh reality to save the world.

And I think that’s why I love the “choose Bad News/Good News” cards and not the the “choose Region for Bad Guys” mechanism. The former seems thematic, the latter does not.

Still, both mechanisms are very interesting and force the solo player to take responsibility for their actions. Like I said, weird choices.

Reaction

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It took a while to get into this. There are a lot of rules. There are a lot of choices. There is a lot of set-up. There is a fair amount of maintenance per turn (but not too much). And the combat is pretty complicated once more and more bad guys come out.

In the end, however, there are were some interesting decisions. I remember in my first game: I choose to wait until the VERY LAST turn to fight Two-Face because I had to make sure I had one last Goal/Upgrade for my “bat dice”. And you know what? I think that made all the difference! I beat Two-Face on the very last turn!

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As I played the game, I felt I could generally do something interesting/helpful every turn; so I always felt like I was making progress. And everything I did (both the weird decisions and other decisions) seemed to be important.

It was fun to agonize over decisions, knowing they all would have some effect, but knowing that we needed to move on!

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The nice thing is, as a solo game, you can have as much Analysis Paralysis as you want!  If you wish to try to play the perfect game and make the perfect decision, that’s your choice.  But the lesson of the game—the lesson of The Dark Knight Returns—is that sometimes you have to make decisions that you don’t like or even hate … just to move forward.  And that was really the coolest part of the game. That theme really came out.

Legacy and Color Palette

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As we’ve alluded to several times, this is a “soft” legacy game.  There are 4 issues to play through, and you save most of your state between issues.  The game recommends keeping everything set-up.

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As I’ve tried very hard to tell you, this game is huge and it completely takes over your table!  See above!  I think you can only leave it set-up for further plays if you have a very dedicated space.

The other alternative is to take a picture of the board (that’s what the rules say) and set it up later. See below.

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Heres’ the issue with that: it’s kinda hard to see where the bad guys are! Sure, it’s not too bad, but the little triangle bad guys don’t “jump out” on the board.  They seem to blend into the board.

This is actually a minor criticism I had of the game.  The color scheme seems … off.  I don’t like the colors they have chosen and how they all fit together.  The Dark Knight Returns comic has a very clear color palette and I don’t think this game embraces that palette very well.   It kind of looks like a mess on the board.  It’s functional, and I can get stuff done, but I feel like this could have been better. What do you think?  See below.

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Having said that, I do like the fact that this is a continuing story, every choice matters, and I really like the “Batman finds paths though the city” (by drawing on the board) as you play.  I think that drawing on the board, with a dry-erase marker, worked well as a legacy mechanic.

Conclusion

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Batman: The Dark Knight Returns The Board Game is a massive game: it will take over your table and take over your life! It’s a solo game that will bring you into the agonizing world of Batman: the difficult (and sometime morally grey) choices of Batman in the The Dark Knight Returns comics are reflected here in this solo game.

I don’t love everything about this game (there’s a lot of weird decisions and a lot of rules), but I do love the theme. I don’t always want to visit the dark, depressing world of Batman from The Dark Knight Returns, but when I want that challenge and that world, this game really delivers.

2 thoughts on “A Review of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (The Board Game)

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